What Is Rye?

The Eastern European grain used in bread and whiskey

Rye Bread

Squirrel Nation / Flickr / CC 2.0

Rye is a cereal grain closely related to wheat and barley. It is popular in Eastern Europe, with most of the world's crops grown in Russia, Poland, and Germany. Many common food and beverages contain rye, including bread, crackers, beer, and whiskey. Rye berries can also be eaten whole or rolled into flakes and eaten as a cereal. Rye flour is prized for being low in gluten and high in soluble fiber.

Rye Bread

Since rye flour contains very little gluten, it is often combined with wheat flour to make bread. Gluten in the wheat flour allows the loaf to rise and become airy, as opposed to the flat, dense texture of 100 percent rye flour loaves.

Rye bread can be made with light or dark rye flours. Light rye flour has a tan or taupe color, light flavor, and contains only a small amount of the rye berry's outer bran shell. Dark rye flour has a deeper color, an intense flavor, and contains nearly all of the bran from the rye berry.

In the United States, rye bread often contains caraway seed for extra flavor. Marble rye bread contains a mixture of wheat and rye flours in varying ratios that are rolled together to create a swirled appearance. Pumpernickel bread, another rye favorite, is a slightly sweet bread with a deep chocolate brown color. The color and sweetness of this dark rye bread are often achieved by the addition of molasses, ​cocoa powder, or even coffee powder.

Rye Whiskey

In the United States, rye whiskey refers to whiskey that has been distilled using at least 51 percent rye (the remainder of which is usually comprised of corn and barley). The use of the name "rye whiskey" is regulated by law in the United States. Rye whiskey that has been aged for more than two years is then designated as straight rye whiskey.

In Canada, there are no laws regulating the use of the name rye whiskey. Historically, most Canadian whiskeys were distilled with rye grains although today it may be made with any ratio of corn to rye. Some Canadian whiskeys contain as little as one part rye to nine parts corn, while other more traditional whiskeys contain 100 percent rye. Since there are no regulations, Canadian whiskey is generally referred to as rye whiskey or even just rye.

Because it is difficult to separate the bran from the center of the rye grain, rye flour tends to have a higher nutrient content than their wheat counterparts. Rye is high in fiber, protein, iron, and minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, zinc, and magnesium. Dark rye flour has the highest nutrient content as it has retained most of the bran. Light rye flour and bread made with a mix of rye and wheat flours will only retain a fraction of these nutritional elements.

Purchasing and Storage

Although some larger grocery store chains may sell small packages of rye flour in the specialty or natural foods section, a greater selection of rye products can usually be found at health food or natural food grocers. In addition to rye flour, dried whole or cracked rye berries are available. These items are most often found in bulk bins but are sometimes offered in small, one-pound bags.

As with all dry grain products, rye should be stored in a cool, dark, and dry environment. It is recommended to store rye in an air-tight container to keep both moisture and pests out. For long term storage, rye flours can be kept refrigerated (sealed air-tight) to prevent the natural oils from going rancid.